Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Historical Adventures (TV)

It astonishes me to this day that there are some Doctor Who fans that will not give the black and white era a chance. Doctor Who has never been about flashy effects or fast paced stories; it has always been about exploring the world of imagination and storytelling. The mighty engine of storytelling of Doctor Who is a portmanteau of styles and ideas that makes me feel quite giddy to consider as a whole. Think of it. The 26 seasons of the original ‘classic’ series (featuring the creeping menace of the black and white years, the hardware of Pertwee, the gothic horror, drawing room comedy and hard SF of Baker, the schizophrenic nature of the 80’s). The experimentation of the New Adventures (reaching such heights as the deliciously playful Conundrum and the gripping Just War). Nostalgic fun in the shape of the Missing and Past Doctor Adventures (with still some space for some truly haunting novels of which The Witch Hunters, The Infinity Doctors and Cold Fusion shine brightly). The daring of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, first in continuing a series of books about a Doctor we hardly know and then having him destroy his home and lose his memory (with novels Father Time and The Adventuress of Henrietta Street exploding with style). The glorious Big Finish Adventures, giving Colin Baker a chance to rock like we always knew he could and giving Paul McGann a chance to explore the character further. The Telos Novellas, possibly the greatest selection of Doctor Who works in print. The Cushing movies. The BBC audios. The long lasting and occasionally utterly stunning comic strip adventures of every single Doctor to date. One of the great advantages of coming to Doctor Who afresh is the wealth of material you can explore and enjoy and discuss. Doctor Who chronicles the imagination of hundreds of writers, directors, musicians, actors, producers and artists (including the set designers, costume artists, make up artists) for nearly 5 decades. It is a force to be reckoned with.

Not to belittle everything that came after but I genuinely feel that the historical adventures that took place in the shows first four years encompass everything great that Doctor Who can offer. They are about as perfect as the show comes. Most of them were produced under exceptional circumstances, each episode rehearsed over a week and squeezed into cramped and stifling BBC studios for two hours on a Friday night. Sydney Newman’s remit to educate his young audience ended up having almost the opposite effect, the historical adventures features some of the most adult material the show has presented. You can feel the influence from behind the scenes, the season one historicals (100,000 BC, Marco Polo, The Aztecs, The Reign of Terror) are crammed full of fascinating facts enforced by Newman, season two was more experimental with the introduction of laugh-a-minute Dennis Spooner as script editor (The Romans, The Crusade, The Time Meddler) and the third season historicals have more bite than earlier seasons put together with Wiles and Tosh ensuring that these adventures hurt (The Myth Makers, The Massacre, The Gunfighters). Season four is the exception, where the historicals were being bled out of the series formula and the last few stabs at this genre were focussed more on fun (The Smugglers, The Highlanders). The BBC were experts at pulling off historical drama so lets take a walk through these dark, dramatic, dangerous, hilarious, witty and adventurous times…

The trip of a lifetime begins with that first step into a humming police box on a foggy winters evening. Ignoring the first episode (as spectacular as it is) the initial step back in time turns into one of the most disturbing. We might shrug our shoulders these days with the thought of walking through one door in London and stepping back out to prehistoric Britain but in 1963 this was a radical concept. Ian and Barbara are used as our eyes and ears in this alien environment and it is their horrified reactions that make this such a disturbing experience. The Tribe of Gum is portrayed with absolute conviction with power struggles, starvation and fear of the beasts in the forest, details that really helps to convince the viewer this is for real. Jacqueline Hill’s performance is especially good, wide eyed wonder as she steps from the ship onto the sandy plain but screaming hysterically once she has been locked up in a cave of skulls, hunted through woods and trips and falls on a dead tiger. Her near breakdown really sells the dangers the travellers are facing. The first story has a treasure trove of little details that are worth mining; the ambiguity of the Doctor’s near murder as he picks up the rock to help Za ‘draw a map’, his cunning in tricking Kal into admitting he killed the old woman, the brutal fire lit fight in the last episode, the dash for the TARDIS at the end (never since has simply reaching the ship felt like such an achievement). The crew may have well have landed on an alien planet for all the otherworldliness this story exudes but the fact that the schoolteachers evolved from communities such as this is just the icing on the cake. Some people say kicking off the show with a story featuring grunting cavemen was a mistake but watched in the dark alone, Doctor Who was rarely as terrifying as it is here and the sheer nausea of the culture shock is phenomenal.

However the first cultured step into history comes two stories on with the sumptuous and detailed Marco Polo. The thought that only three stories (two of those partly complete) from the first two years have been wiped and Marco Polo is one of them is a criminal injustice. Recently the telesnaps have been recovered from the director so we have had a chance to see what a triumph this was for everybody, highlighting the set and costume designers especially. A truly epic journey, we follow Marco Polo through the Roof of the World (the Himalayas), the Gobi desert, the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes, Shang-Tu and finally Peking. The thought of attempting to recreate an embarkation worthy of a series of movies in the hot and poky Lime Grove studios with a limited budget was possibly suicidal for the series. But just look at those photos, the story is lit beautifully, the sets are lush and appear very spacious, the costumes radiate colour and charm even in black and white and listening to the audio everybody is putting in a glorious performance, the music is utterly charming and the pace never lets up. The script is one of the most ambitious in the series and allows each of the regulars a chance to shine. Ian, after three stories of being the baffled science teacher finally gets a chance to be the macho man of the series and really steps into his role as protector here. He faces up to Tegana in a number of wonderful scenes. Barbara gets a truly horrific moment where she is tied up by bandits and they roll dice to see which of them will slice her throat open. In a rare chance to see more to Susan than a drippy teenager her relationship with Ping Cho radiates warmth and chemistry. The Doctor faces off with the mighty Kublai Khan in some gloriously funny sequences, the two of them playing backgammon for high stakes (he wins the material wealth of Burma for one year!). Throughout we gain a new regular in Mark Eden’s Polo, a thoughtful and delicate performance, initially distrustful of the regulars but growing to like and finally to protect them in his quest to return home to Venice. His narration of the story gives it a classical edge and makes the audio even more easier to follow. Certain scenes, even with just the telesnaps and audio to go on are very powerful: the urgency of the singing sands, the Doctor waking up to a slowly condensing TARDIS, Susan grabbed by Tegana just as they are about to escape, another concluding fight that ends bloodily. Marco Polo is a massive departure from the rest of Doctor Who, a lyrical, educational epic that forgets about alien monsters and villains and sees the Doctor and company truly experiencing the beauty and horror of history. A gem.

A popular story, The Aztecs capitalises on one of the biggest strengths of the shows first two years, Barbara. Susan was probably supposed to be the audience identification character from the original line up but none of her reactions ever seem particularly realistic to me (Simon is very fond of doing Susan impressions…”OH GRANDFATHER!” “BARARA….ARGGGGHHHHHHH!” and such like). No it’s Barbara that I usually always side with and understand, from her hysteria in 100,000 BC to her desperation when exploring the Dalek City and her flirting with Ganatus to her glorious tirade at the Doctor in The Edge of Destruction (“Accuse us! You ought to get down on your hands and knees and thank us! But gratitude is the last thing on your mind…or any kind of common sense either!”). She is the most sensible but also the most emotional of the crew (the difference with Susan is her emotions have range). In this story Barbara is mistaken for the God Yetaxa, a potentially silly situation but pulled off with absolute seriousness. The story grabs the viewers interest in the first few seconds and never lets go and has a little bit of something for everyone: Barbara’s ethical dilemma allows for some stunning acting showcases, there are a number of fight sequences for the bloodthirsty viewer, political drama ensues with Tlotoxol attempting to discredit Barbara, the Doctor gets involved with a gentle Aztec lady for those who enjoy a bit of romance and all the while the story is teaching us about a genuinely fascinating period of history. At four episodes the story has a great pace and once again looks superb with some of the most impressive landscape backdrops ever seen in the series. The tone and dialogue convince us that the travellers have wound up in Mexico but visually it is stunning too with a lovely main set centred around the tomb of Yetaxa and also a lush garden set for the Doctor to enjoy his romance. A new Doctor Who genre is created here, with the dilemma of experiencing and wanting to alter history. It would be played for laughs just one year later but Barbara’s conviction in wanting to start the destruction of everything evil the Aztecs do so everything that is good can survive when Cortez lands is gripping, especially when she defies the Doctor’s wishes in doing so. It is moments such as the confrontation between Hill and Hartnell at the beginning of episode two that made the show so compelling to watch. Susan is (mercifully) written out of much of the action but Hartnell is also given the chance to stretch his wings. You cannot fail to laugh when he accidentally drinks some cocoa and gets engaged but more surprising is how much he seems to enjoy his relationship with Cameca. There is another great fight at the end of the tale and Barbara’s realisation that she cannot make the differences she wanted but she managed salvage one mans soul is a touching ending for a stylish tale.

After three deadly serious historicals season one ends with a more light-hearted affair, albeit with a razor sharp edge. Having enjoyed studying the French Revolution at university this was a period I always thought the show was made to explore. Politics, warfare, fabulous clothes, overconfident peasants, heads being lopped off, bread riots, Royalist uprisings, insurrection, raids…it is a minefield of real life drama. Odd then that this story chooses to simply sample the period rather than get the travellers involved in main sweep of events of the Revolution. 1794 is eight years into what historically would be called The French Revolution and The Reign of Terror chronicles the end of Robespierre’s days so we’re coming to the period at the end of the party, so to speak. Dennis Spooner wrote a cracking script regardless and one which concentrates on the seedier aspects of French life at the time; Ian is left in a jail cell with a rotting corpse and Barbara and Susan are carted off to have their heads cut off. There is a lovely twist halfway through that sees Leon Colbert reveal himself as a spy for the Revolution which throws much of the previous action in a different light. But it’s the comedy that really stands out as something not really attempted to this degree before and scenes such as the Doctor facing up to the tyrannical road work overseer and bamboozling the jailer feature a confident and charming William Hartnell on form. I do feel this story runs out of steam in its later episodes but the first two or three continue the high standards of the earlier historicals with some delicious cliff-hangers (the Doctor choking in the burning building is pulled off with surprising style) and a nervous feeling of a noose around the necks of the time travellers. William Russell and Jackie Hill are still going strong but it is clear from this story that Carole Ann Ford is merely a dead weight, storytelling wise. She spends most of the story screaming, ill or unconscious. Maybe they should have given her the chop here. The Reign of Terror is a nice piece but Spooner would get another (and superior) crack at it next year.

With The Gunfighters, The Romans is the funniest thing the show has produced. It is a story where everything gels and the performers all seem at their peak. Come and watch Barbara kidnapped and sold in a slave auction, bought by a kind old Christian and slobbered over by Nero, Emperor of all Rome. Delight in the Doctor being mistaken for the famous lyre player from Corinth, Maximus Petallian, and getting caught up in courtly intrigue as he fights of an assassin, performs musically at a grand banquet and almost gets thrown in the arena with the lions. Balk as Ian is bought and put to work in a slave galley, his ship torn to pieces by a storm and forced to fight as a gladiator for Nero’s pleasure. Laugh as Vicki proves a hopelessly inept shopper, chats with the chief poisoner and almost kills Nero. It’s a story with a wicked sense of humour that approaches history with a cheeky sense of whimsy whilst still exploring its less than salubrious aspects. Vicki has usurped Susan and she is much more fun, O’Brien and Hartnell proving a winning double act wondering around Rome like a pair of mischievous trouble makers. Barbara is in trouble as usual but this time it is all played for laughs as she is pursued through the cloisters of the palace by a fat, bumbling and very horny Nero. The third episode trips into farce and it is astonishing how well this works, despite being as far from the ‘educational’ historical we have been used to. I find Nero’s giggling glee quite scary and this mixture of laughs and chills makes the story an unusual mix. There’s so much going on and so many marvellous lines and witty moments that it is all over before you know it. The running gag of the time travellers missing each other continues to delight for four whole episodes, preceeding Partners in Crime by 40 odd years. One of the bubbliest, unconventional and delightful televised adventures.

From high comedy to Shakespearean drama (with six episodes of SF madness in between) the juxtaposition of The Romans and the Crusade proves the variety of riches these historicals can provide. David Whitaker’s script was so good Spooner and Camfield didn’t alter a line (which was a given in this period of Doctor Who) and even heavyweight actor Julian Glover was impressed. It’s another obvious choice for a historical adventure but what surprises is how honest and adult the material is. My favourite sections involve Barbara once again, kidnapped early on (it’s almost as thought she enjoyed making Ian sick with worry!) and held by the loathsome El Akir, she samples the best (a wary but delightful conversation with Saladin) and worst (“The only pleasure left for you is death. And death is very far away”) Jaffa has to offer. Her pursuit on the streets climaxes in the truly haunting image of her clinging a dagger and terrified that killing the girl clinging on to her might be more humane than letting her fall into the hands of the guards. Jackie Hill is just too good at these moments of pathos. The Crusaders and Saracens are both portrayed with dignity, both sides holding one hand out in peace but keeping the other on their swords. Episode three (which thankfully still exists) must rank as the best episode of the year features one stunning scene after another. The Doctor’s outrage at Leicester’s brutish behaviour allows Hartnell to bark with real relish but even he is topped by Glover and Jean Marsh who produce probably the most vicious and dramatic confrontations in the shows history, the dialogue stings and the delivery is just superb. With lovely direction touches such as the pan backwards to reveal Saladin contemplating in the shadows and delightful characters as Ben Daheer and the Chamberlain, it is not until the story ends that you realise it doesn’t actually have a plot. With moments of genuine drama and a stellar cast strutting their stuff, this is another captivating piece of Who.

Dennis Spooner takes another stab at writing a historical with the charming and cheeky 1066 adventure The Time Meddler. Recycling ideas produced in The Aztecs but having more fun with them he treats the viewer to the first peek at another member of the Doctor’s race. The Meddling Monk is a brilliant character and something of the antithesis to the Doctor, who delights in executing bold plans to improve history for the better. Peter Butterworth gives a lovely performance, at times contemplatively silent but mostly a mischievous little tyke set upon doing anything to wind up the Doctor. There are number of gorgeous Doctor Who moments, hilarious and imaginative, the sight of atomic canons on the cliff tops of Northumbria, the jumping grammar phone pretending to be a monks singing and the Monk’s wish list (number 8 is ‘Meet King Harold’). Douglas Camfield is once again in the director’s chair and atmosphere is the name of the game and he makes the use of rolling clouds and sound effects to transform the studios into a coastal village. The story is a game of two halves, imaginative and bouncy when it is dealing with the Monk but at times slow and stilted when focussing on the Vikings and their raid on the village. However the former gets more screen time and affords Hartnell and Butterworth to clash heads, their chemistry so good they got a rematch a year later. It is a slight story but one which offers possibilities to the series (the cliff hanger to episode three where Vicki and Steven stumble into the Monk’s TARDIS is gob smacking) and has enough wit and style to make the four episodes slip down like smooth ice cream. Spooner’s dialogue is a highlight, funny and lively.

An overlooked gem in the myriad of styles in season three, The Myth Makers is one of the great lost Doctor Who stories. Donald Cotton’s two scripts for this season were both loaded with fantastic one liners, a real appreciation for their period and colourful and engaging characters. Thank goodness one of them still exists but unfortunately it is not this one. Even I ignored this story for a long time blind to the fantastic time this story offers. Humour and horror walk hand in hand and the first three episodes are surprisingly whimsical with some truly risqué scripting. An idea that has been used since but rarely to this effect, the Doctor walks in on a Greek/Trojan fight and is mistaken for the great God Zeus. You’ve got to love how the Doctor plays up to the fact and how all the other characters poke fun at his attempts. Vicki meanwhile falls into the arms of the Trojans and falls for King Priam’s son Troilius. The heart of the story is the Doctor and Vicki either side of this ten year conflict, their captors longing for them to end the stalemate. As much as I adore O’Brien (given a solid role in her last adventure) and Hartnell (especially the thought of the Doctor cramped in the Trojan horse as it is wheeled up the hill to its place in history) there are a number of guest performances that are worthy of mention. Barrie Ingham’s weedy and cowardly Paris is hilariously inept (his whispered taunting of Achilles is a particular highlight) and Frances White is brilliantly melodramatic as his prophetess sister Cassandra (HOW DAAAARREEEE YOU!”). Cavan Kendall imbues Priam with dignity and Francis de Wolff’s Agamemnon lives up to his mighty reputation. The final episode has a funereal atmosphere as only a story where we already know the ending can and Priam’s praise of Vicki for banishing the Greek army is laced with bitter irony. The slaughter at the climax is like a knife to your gut after all the frolics of the earlier episodes. A superb script allowing Vicki the chance to depart with real gravity.

The joy of these historical adventures are their introduction to periods we might not have known anything about and the fascination brewed up in me by The Massacre makes it one of my favourite Doctor Who adventures. That’s no easy achievement. Another trip to Paris (what is about that city and spilling blood?), this time the year is 1572 and there is a discontent in the air since the Catholic King’s sister has married a Protestant Prince. The story uses politics and religious intolerance like no other, tightly focussed on the major players in Paris at the time, using its early episodes to introduce and explore the characters and their idealism and building up to a dramatic assassination attempt and the concluding with terrifying Massacre of the title. Each of season three’s Historicals ends with a bloodbath but this is the most powerful because Steven’s reaction is so vicious. It is his entanglement in the Parisian politics that make this story so interesting, allying himself with the Protestants and slowly uncovering details of the Catholic plot to murder the Huguenots. The story throws in an old chestnut, the merciless Abbot of Amboise is the spitting image of the Doctor but it wisely amputates the Doctor from the action so we are never sure if this is the Time Lord or not. Hartnell’s performance as the Abbot is utterly chilling, word perfect and his mere presence generates an air of disquiet (his first appearance is beautifully built up, banging his cane on the floor impatiently as nervous apologies are made to him). Highlights include Charles’ hysterical reaction to the attempted shooting of Admiral de Coligny and the his mothers biting admission to it, the astonishing cliff-hanger which sees the Abbot dead in the street, the adorably cute Ann Chaplet whose potential murder strikes Steven as a step too far in regards to the Doctor’s callous observation of history and of course the Doctor’s heartbroken soliloquy at the conclusion as he is abandoned in the console room. This is the story the proves how adult Doctor Who can be without losing its ability to teach and entertain but more importantly it proves (if it were needed) what fine actors both William Hartnell and Peter Purves are.

From near fatalism to high jinks, The Gunfighters has been tarnished for too long by Doctor Who stalwarts, practically unseen for an age but revealed as a well observed and hilariously funny romp when it was released on video. I can’t wait for the DVD release. I’m not the biggest fans of Western’s but if they were all as bawdy and riotous as this I would have enjoyed them all the more. Its all a case of mistaken identity again when the Doctor is tricked into the guise of the infamous Doc Holliday and before he know it he is lining up four of the most infamous gunslingers in the West against the saloon bar with a pistol! The story follows the usual western traditions with a twist, the outlaw this time is a lovable rogue, the innocent party is jailed in the sheriff’s office, the sherrif’s brother and goonish bartender shot dead…it toys about with the clichés playfully. And the jokes are just sublime, the very idea of the Doctor asking for a glass of milk in a saloon bar, his reactions to being subjective to western dentistry, Steven and Dodo forced to entertain the Clanton’s, the Doctor’s outrage at everybody giving him guns…it is one very funny moment after another with Hartnell relishing the chance to spread his acting chops. Contrary to popular opinion this is very well made as well with some lovely split level direction, atmospheric lighting and sumptuous sets. I even enjoy the much scorned Ballad of the Last chance Saloon which narrates the action in a new fashion with even more gags. There is a shootout at the end of The Gunfighters that looks as slick and well paced as any action sequence that comes after it. With its perceptive sense of humour and its feel good nature, this is a triumphant comedy that deliciously pulls off a Western in a BBC studio. Because it has spent so long being lambasted and it never fails to make me smile, I give it full marks.

Onto season four, where not a single entire story still exists. The biggest difference between The Smugglers and The Gunfighters, both of which are light hearted, is the companions they feature. With Steven (a terrific companion but past his usefulness now) and Dodo (who barely registered) now surgically removed from the series (with very little subtlety in either case) we are now travelling with swinging sixties Polly and cockney sailor Ben. Both of which help to bring this tale of pirates and hidden treasure alive in fresh and entertaining ways. Polly is so enthusiastic about the idea of time travel but gets her first lesson when accused of murdering the church warden. Ben is just a babe, a real hard nut who has no problems standing up to the dodgy characters they meet here and never better than in the scene where he attempts to convince Tom that Polly has been possessed by the spirit of the Doctor. Just one story away from his departure Hartnell shows no signs of the reputed tiredness or even forgetfulness, indeed this is one of his strongest performances as the Doctor (and that is saying something), forming an instant rapport with his new friends and smooshing his way with the pirates. The telesnaps reveal the usual high standards, some realistic sets and a wealth of sumptuous location work. The soundtrack is delightful, lots of back stabbing and politics. I would have liked a few more historicals in this vein, perhaps not as educational as they were originally intended but colourful and exciting and a pleasure to experience.

Hardly deserving of its reputation as a forgettable that murdered the Historicals, The Highlanders is a surprisingly dark tale with moments of levity. Any story that introduces Jamie and has the good sense to have Ben walking about in wet, figure hugging clothes is okay in my book! The Jacobite rebellion is brought to the screen with a surprising amount of gusto with some vicious fight scenes and lovely, dark touches such as the cell which fills with water and the attempted hanging. It’s probably Anneke Wills’ strongest story as Polly who gets to have a blast manipulating Algenon Ffinch and enjoying a nice, spiky relationship with Kirsty. Troughton is playing the Doctor for laughs but he’s marvellous, his outrageous disguise as Doctor von Wer works a beaut, especially during the fantastic scene in episode two where he manages to tie up Solicitor Grey and practically knock out his clerk. Like the Smugglers it doesn’t really have anything profound to say or do beyond entertaining you for four episodes but as a Troughton historical it feels wildly out of place and hence is worth treasuring.

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